Pausing before a not-yet-completed bridge spanning a rocky little stream bed, I watched a weary construction team haul steel bars from one side to the other. Kelly, a 25 year-old guide from a tribe native to this mountainous region of the Philippines, sat up straight in the front seat of the jeepney and pointed off to the left.
“This used to be the Guihod Natural Pool. It was very good for swimming.”
I furrowed my brow, recalling having seen “Guihod Natural Pool” listed on that day’s travel itinerary.
“So…no one can swim here anymore?”
Kelly turned around to face me. “Oh, no — it was filled in two years ago to make way for this bridge.”
And that’s the moment when I knew for sure:
The travel agents who planned this trip had never actually been here.
To be fair, there had already been red flags, even before I left the States. But in my line of work, when someone offers you a pretty-much-all-expenses-paid journey to a remote and reportedly gorgeous part of the world, you tend to say yes.
Twelve days before the start of a press trip that his agency was arranging on behalf of the Philippine Department of Tourism, the usual freakishly young public relations rep emailed me and offered me a choice of two itineraries:
1) The Banaue mountain region way north of Manila, home to ancient tribes and lush, green rice terraces;
2) The Bohol beach region, home to white sand and clear water, as well as chubby, round hills and a tarsier sanctuary.
Both sounded amazing to me, but having no firsthand experience of either, I farmed the decision out to my travel colleagues on Facebook. There were lots of votes for the beaches, but two people had actually been to both regions and urged me to go for Banaue (“bah-now-way”).
I took this advice to heart, but also took a quick spin through the Web, finding dozens of articles about the Philippine beaches and almost nothing on the mountains. Since my main goal as a travel blogger is to find little-covered destinations and story angles in order to boost my chances of being found online, and my job as a freelance travel writer is to determine which destinations haven’t been covered by various publications in a long while (or better yet, ever)…my choice was clear.
In less than two weeks, I’d be schlepping my way ’round the rice terraces of the Philippines.
Two days after initial contact, when said public relations rep suggested that I buy my own $1500 airline tickets and send him the receipt for reimbursement, I balked. I had at this point taken over 30 sponsored press trips, but had never been asked to book my own flights. And really, anyone who’s ever tried to get reimbursed by a corporate entity knows that a charge like this will hit your credit card long before you’ll get that check in the mail.
I demurred and suggested instead that the company book flights on my behalf, the usual press trip way. Happily, e-receipt of my Philippine Airlines flights came through within the hour, and all seemed well.
Bonus: I learned that Philippine Airlines existed.
Double bonus: I was relieved and happy to learn that the one other blogger on my trip would be travel photographer JD Andrews, better known as earthXplorer. JD is well-regarded in my work world, and prior to this trip had traveled or collaborated with some of my favorite people.
One week after my flights were booked, I received a snail-mailed packet from a travel agency that included my trip itinerary and a safety/insurance waiver for my signature. Rifling through it quickly, I had one glaring, initial question:
Why would a public relations company representing a tourism bureau – with all of the bureau’s inherent knowledge at their disposal – turn to a travel agency to plan a trip?
I immediately looked up the websites for both the public relations agency and the travel agency. The former is actually an advertising and marketing agency with an impressive array of commercial brands on its client roster; conspicuously absent, though, are any travel industry companies or tourism bureaus. This company seemed an odd choice for the Philippines Department of Tourism to hire, since a simple Web search for “travel public relations” yields about two dozen specialty agencies within the first three Google pages.
The latter site, for the travel agency, told an even stranger tale: the site lists twenty-two destination specialties, but exactly zero of these are the Philippines. Puzzled, I took yet another simple spin about the Web and found a wide array of choices for “Philippines travel agency.”
Looking back, this was the moment when I could have taken my fate in my hands and backed out of the trip.
But much like a lonely man who seeks out a mail-order bride, I thought of scenes like this one…
…and said nothing.
A brief look at the travel agency’s itinerary inspired further questions:
It appeared we’d have an entire day in Manila with no planned activities. Could this be right? A tourism bureau was hosting travel bloggers in its country’s capital for a whole day without thinking to formally show them…anything?
Instead, it was apparent that JD and I were merely meant to wait around ’til nightfall for a luxury van to pick us up from our hotel and drive us 10 hours overnight up to the Cordillera Mountains. Our hotel-room checkout times were undefined on the itinerary, and I couldn’t exactly picture a “luxury van.”
But I didn’t ask for clarifications on these points. Based on my previous experience of press trips, I simply assumed my questions would be answered by the public relations/marketing/advertising/what have you rep upon our meeting in the Philippines.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now like to imagine that this clarification failure on my part was inspired by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a book I’d just finished a few weeks before.
Magical thinking, indeed.
To be continued in
A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Two